When Gareth Edwards’ “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” hits theaters later this week, “Star Wars” fans will finally get to meet a brand new set of characters as they embark on the frequently referred to, yet never previously dramatized mission to steal the Death Star plans. First looks at the so-called gritty war film have played up the more roguish aspects of its diverse new stars, from Felicity Jones as leader Jyn Erso to Diego Luna as rebel higher-up Cassian Endor to Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen as a mysterious (but very clearly dangerous) pair of warriors with their own secrets.
Yet few characters are as intriguing as Riz Ahmed’s Bodhi Rook, a former Imperial pilot who deserts the Empire to join up with the Rebel Alliance, ostensibly to aid in their mission and to get revenge on the nefarious group that previously employed him. It’s a role that smacks of John Boyega’s recent turn in “The Force Awakens” as Finn, a former Stormtrooper-turned-Rebel-fighter, and early footage of Ahmed as Rook has made it clear that he’s a desperate guy with plenty of information to spare.
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And Ahmed almost didn’t even play him.
IndieWire recently sat down with Ahmed — who, as of this morning, is now a Golden Globe nominee for his turn in the HBO series “The Night Of” — to talk about what the first standalone “Star Wars” film has in store for fans and how Ahmed’s own role in the film changed over time.
Ahmed didn’t need much to convince him to join the film — he amusingly remembered his initial conversation with Edwards running along the lines of “There’s a thing, there’s a guy. Interested?” — but he did admit that he started the auditioning process with very little to go on.
“Gareth pitched me the idea of the film and who the character is and sent me audition [script] pages that aren’t in the film,” Ahmed explained. “I did that and then I overdid it and started sending him multiple takes over like three or four days. He emailed me and said, ‘stop emailing me. We don’t know each other, this is weird.'”
Those audition pages weren’t the only thing that didn’t end up in the final film. Turns out, neither did Ahmed’s original character. “The role actually completely changed,” the actor explained. “The name changed, his job changed, his relationship to the story and the other characters completely changed, it totally changed.”
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Ahmed, however, was reticent to dive too deeply into the particulars of his original role (such is so often the case with the notoriously tight-lipped franchise), though he does see it of evidence that Edwards and the rest of the “Star Wars” team were unusually open to changes and new ideas.
“I don’t want to cloud people’s viewing of this film too much by talking about where the character started out,” Ahmed said. “But I think that something which is cool was the way in which the filmmakers and Gareth and the writers really embraced this organic approach of allowing the story and the characters to evolve.”
Earlier this summer, word got out that “Rogue One” was undergoing a series of reshoots, many of them overseen by filmmaker Tony Gilroy, who previously assisted Edwards on his first blockbuster, “Godzilla.” Despite the enduring belief that reshoots usually signal that something is hugely amiss on a production, Ahmed is clear that he thinks they only helped the film reach its full potential.
“If something worked particularly well, then we would go back and redo the stuff that didn’t work as well,” Ahmed explained. “I think that’s a cool way to use a big budget rather than just loads of dumb explosions.”
Another cool way to use a big budget? By breaking the mold of what’s come before.
“The fact that we are a standalone movie allows us to break the mold a little bit and I feel proud to say I think we have,” Ahmed said. “I feel like this is a different kind of ‘Star Wars’ movie. It just feel edgier. It just feels a bit more grown up. A bit darker in places. A bit grittier. What’s the point in making so many different films in one story world unless you’re trying to contribute something fresh, bring something fresh to the table?”
Ahmed is also hopeful that the new film will speak to the current political and cultural climate — one that already includes at least one call from white supremacists to boycott the film — in a positive way.
“Why shouldn’t our cinema reflect the world around us and the reality of its turmoils? That’s the role of cinema,” Ahmed said. “I think that if you go back and watch something like ‘The Battle of Algiers’ or ‘A New Hope,’ they feel resonant to this day. Hopefully we’re not just speaking to one particular moment, but we’re trying to make a movie that remains relevant for years to come because it speaks to some fundamental struggles and truths about being alive.”
Part of that relevance lies in not only the film’s core storyline, but the very different characters who come together — yes, a band of rogues — to fight for a common good. For Ahmed, that’s the real power of “Rogue One.”
“This is a story about a load of people from completely different backgrounds all coming together to take on a challenge that none of them could face alone,” the actor said. “I think that is quite a poignant message, because the challenges that we all face as a human race and as a planet are ones that we can only face together. A film like this, where you’ve got diverse characters getting together to take on a big challenge that’s bigger than themselves, is something that I hope speaks to people.”
“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” will be released in theaters on December 16.